The Infamous Stringdusters received the Bluegrass Album of the Year Grammy for 2017’s Laws of Gravity. That album followed Ladies and Gentlemen, in which the band collaborated with a stellar group of women singers. The creative roll continues with Rise Sun, a musically potent meditation on the journey from darkness to light.
It is a 21st century pop music cliché to say that nobody makes album-length musical statements anymore, but that is an easily debunked myth, with artists ranging from Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell to Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar making records that reward sustained beginning-to-end listens.
Rise Sun easily joins the ranks of Isbell’s The Nashville Sound and Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as a album that rewards the time a listener is willing to put into it. Nearly an hour long, Rise Sun sprawls but rarely feels self-indulgent. Extended introductions and fade-outs create effective transitions from one song to the next, giving the album a seamless flow that gently guide listeners on the journey. Solos give the band members the chance to display their extraordinary musicianship, but always in service to the song.
In making an album with this kind of ambition, the members of the Infamous Stringdusters (Andy Falco – guitar, Chris Pandolfi – banjo, Andy Hall – dobro, Jeremy Garrett – fiddle, and Travis Book – double bass) do not seem to have concerned themselves much with recording any specific song that explodes all over radio or YouTube. Even after listening to the album several times, and thoroughly enjoying it, I wasn’t feeling an earworm. Like so many A&R reps of the past and present, I wasn’t “hearing a single”. At the same time though, the album, filled with songs that weave together elements of folk, country, rock, gospel, and pop, was sinking deep into my musical heart and soul, where I think it has found a permanent space.
While the instrumentation of Rise Sun is rooted in the bluegrass of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs – as well later innovators like the Seldom Scene — the album only occasionally hints at the traditions of the genre: a high lonesome vocal here, a certain banjo or guitar lick there. The Infamous Stringdusters have built their career on respecting the past while moving the music forward and Rise Sun is another bold step in that direction. Having said that, “Long Time Going” feels like a solid relatively traditional bluegrass tune.
While their respect for tradition is evident, it’s clear that the Infamous Stringdusters, who co-produced the record with Billy Hume, don’t subscribe to the ragged-but-right aesthetic that is sometimes associated with roots music. Rise Sun is a beautifully played and produced record, with every note in place, even when the band is jamming.This kind of precision can be a recipe for sterility, but the album generally avoids this, maintaining an engaging feel that nicely evokes the excitement of the Infamous Stringdusters’ concerts.
Rise Sun is an album about the light and how to reach it. From the handclaps and stomping gospel of the opening title track through to the closing “Truth and Love”, the Infamous Stringdusters are traveling the highways and chasing the light, both physical and spiritual.
You can’t seek the light without acknowledging the darkness, which the Infamous Stringdusters do throughout Rise Sun. Hints of damaged relationships crop up, as do allusions to a world slightly off-kilter. Even “Wake the Dead”, where the pursued light is primarily carnal in nature (“Go all night til there’s nothing left / Have a little fun with no regrets”), ominously notes “Like some kind of zombie freezing cold / I think we all better check our pulse.”
In the end though, light prevails in the luminous closing track, “Truth and Love”. “Seek the truth / Find your love,” the lyrics note, as the album closes with the gentle suggestion, “Let the light shine from your soul.” In some contexts, this sentiment might sound trite. Heard at the end of Rise Sun, it feels like an epiphany, simple yet profound.